ahorbinski: a Chinese woman with her sword (read books practice sword)
Bibliographic Data: Karl, Rebecca E. Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Main Argument: This book traces the development, in turn of the 20thC China, of a set of conceptual understandings that came to constitute the discourse termed "nationalism" and from which a potentially revolutionary, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word, understanding of China and its place in the world was temporarily articulated. For a time, Chinese intellectuals of the nationalist bent framed themselves in terms of their place in an alternate, non-Euro-American conception of a world order based on shared characteristics (i.e. not being white) and shared colonial oppression. NB: Karl's transcription system is…idiosyncratic at best, so I'm sorry if that causes confusion; I can't tell what she actually means in Pinyin most of the time.

You say you want a revolution/Well, you know we all wanna change the world )

Conclusion: Argument, Sources, Examples Karl argues in her conclusion that modern diachronic history of nationalism is usually only written in relationship with either itself or the West, which is an invidious truth; she also notes that what she characterizes as a vision of modernity predicated on the recognition f global unevenness, rather than the supposed Western narrative of capitalist linearity, has repeatedly re-emerged and been submerged in China in the 20thC. It seems to me that the idea of "unevenness" is predicated on a Marxian critique of capital that is rooted in the prior existence of capital, so I don't really find Karl's argument inherently convincing on those grounds, though her book shows that alternate visions are possible, if always fragile, because emerging in an environment that is overdetermined in the exact opposite direction.

Critical assessment: This is overall a very good book, but it's marred for me by several persistent blindspots. For one thing, I wish Karl would tone down some of her jargon, a lot of which she simply doesn't need to make her arguments--there's no need to speak of "globality" when "the global" will do just as well. For another, like all world systems theorists, she just can't let go of capital, or really come to grips with the fact that capitalism as we know it today is historically contingent rather than inevitable. I also find it weird, in a book so concerned with non-Euro-American experiences of colonialism, that she writes "Hawaii" rather than "Hawai'i" (and it's not like this is unknown in academic circles; the University of Hawi'i Press writes "Hawai'i"). She's also bought into what I like to call the myth of globalization, namely the idea that "globalization" is something new and different on the world historical scene, which…it's just not. Certainly global economic connections are much, much broader and deeper than they have ever been, particularly in the form of global financial institutions and norms, but it's a laughable fallacy to think that a at least semi-globally integrated economy has not been with us throughout history: it has. Those connections thin and shallow over time according to historical events, but they remain, and I can't help but feel that if Karl had read Andre Gunder Frank or Janet Abu-Lughod, her book wouldn't be marred by that flaw.

Still, she says a lot of smart things, many also fairly provocative, and if she can't quite grasp the ways in which modernity structures her own understanding of "history" (paging Dipesh Chakrabarty), the book provides an excellent microscopic narrative of how nationalism emerges out of modernity.

Further reading: Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation; Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity; Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution; Angela Zito, Of Body and Brush; Tetsuo Najita and J. Victor Koschmann, eds., The Neglected Tradition
Meta notes: I think the only book that ever fully satisfies my preferences from a formatting and copy-editing standpoint will be my own.
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Hevia, James L. English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. [Globally either by Duke or by Hong Kong University Press.]

Main Argument: Hevia's animating position in this complex and excellent book is that "imperialism was always more than guns and goods; it was also a cultural process involving resistance to and accommodation of forces or entities attempting to achieve hegemonic control over specific geographic spaces" (3). In English Lessons he documents the intertwined colonialist violences of arms and of language that, in conjunction with the resistance and participation of Chinese populations, deterritorialized and reterritorialized spaces geographic, linguistic, cultural and social in China over the long 19th century: "a pedagogical project was undertaken, that was itself a form of colonization" (13): the Western colonial powers sought to teach the Qing, and later the Chinese, how to behave "properly" in the international sphere of their own devising. Hevia's "fundamental objective is to reopen the study of Euroamerican imperialism in East Asia and to clarify the nature of colonialism in nineteenth-century China" (14-15). Along the way, Hevia demonstrates how these imperialisms operated equally in the colony and in the imperial metropole, rendering familiar things equally strange in both places, and locates China within these "globalizing forces" (27).

The reasonable thing is to learn from those who can teach. )

Critical assessment: I think this might be the best book we've read so far in this class. Certainly for my money it presents the best balance of actual descriptions of historical processes in concert with what those processes meant. I particularly like that Hevia prioritizes the actual violence the Western colonial pedagogy in Qing China entailed; for Lydia Liu, by contrast, the violence of language is primary, which I appreciate but which I think is fundamentally putting the cart before the horse. Hevia tosses off more brilliant insights per chapter than other writers manage in an entire book, and there are multiple concepts in here--particularly his extended discussion at the end of "the return of the repressed" and the role of the 19thC empires in the rise of the tropes of global conspiracy and global power in the late 19th and 20thC. There's an entire book waiting to be written on the evolution of this concept from Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu to superhero comics to James Bond--the empire is the conspiracy, and its the linkage of colonial peripheries with imperial centers via the empire itself that gives rise to the specter of global conspiracies and global organizations fighting them. That's a digression, but it's testament to how fascinating Hevia's idea is. I also think he does a better job than some of not giving the Qing short shrift as agents in their own right, though the focus of the book remains on the discourse the British told to themselves. Anyway. Brilliant, fascinating, well-written and also a beautifully designed book.

Further reading: Brian Farwell, Queen Victoria's Little Wars, Mr. Kipling's Army, Armies of the Raj; Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Crowded Hours, Jonathan Spence, To Change China, The Gate of Heavenly Peace

Meta notes: I admire the way Hevia views both tangible objects of material culture (dogs, loot, buildings, land) and intangible objects--rituals, media, advertisements, photographs, economies--as equally imbued with meaning and equally open to being de- and re- territorialized and contextualized; it gives his narrative a real heft that the more rarified discourse of someone like Lydia Liu necessarily lacks, though Liu outstrips him in some respects. The two books remain complementary and necessary, but I'm more personally attracted to Hevia's style than to Liu's.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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